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Confidence Survey ResultsInc. 500|5000 2010

Why I Stepped Down

Why the former CEO of Eco-Products, Steve Savage, thought the family business would be better off with a more experienced leader.

Letting Go Steve Savage wondered if the family business would be better off without him.

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During a summer hike with his son, Steve, in 1990, Kent Savage proposed they start a business that would distribute products made from recycled content. Over the next decade, they built Boulder, Colorado–based Eco-Products into a profitable distributor of items such as earth-friendly disposable cups and cutlery. After Kent died, Steve oversaw an ambitious shift in the business model. The change spurred phenomenal growth. But with that growth came a startling realization for Steve: Perhaps the best thing for the business would be for him to step aside.

My dad retired in 1999. That's when I became president and CEO. For 15 years, we were a retail distributor for other manufacturers. We started to have abnormal success in restaurant supplies and realized if we ever really wanted to grow the brand, we needed to start manufacturing the products ourselves.

In 2005, we began a two-year process of transforming into a manufacturing wholesaler. We wanted to expand into new sales channels, such as office supplies and retail, but I didn't have any experience in those areas. We also wanted to start making acquisitions.

At first, we tried to hire a CFO who had the experience we needed. It was during that process that I thought, You know, I don't think having a CFO is going to solve our problem. I realized that we needed to look at my position. The company is very special to me. It's a family business, so I wanted what was best for it, and I thought it may be best to hire a more experienced CEO.

I mulled over the decision for three or four weeks. My siblings and mom own stock in the company, but they aren't involved in business decisions. My wife was supportive, though she was more nervous than I was about the move. I also had lunch with Aaron Kennedy, the founder of Noodles & Company. He told me that going from CEO to executive chairman of his business was the best decision he ever made. That helped.

It was definitely emotional, but by the time I made up my mind, I was 100 percent certain it was time to step down. I led the process to find a replacement, with the help of three board members. We notified our management team, and they interviewed our final two candidates. One of them was Bob King, who had taken Corporate Express from a $50 million business to a $4.5 billion business. It was obvious that he would be a great replacement.

I announced the news to the rest of the company at 8 o'clock in the morning on Bob's first day in July '09. The team was a little nervous at first, but when Bob stood in front of the group and started to talk about his background and the future of Eco-Products, they responded very well.

As expected, Bob has expanded Eco-Products into new channels with ease. Today, our products are available on the Staples and Costco websites. I'm chairman of the board. I go to the executive meeting every week, so I know what we're doing and why; I'm just not involved in rolling it out. I spend 10 percent of my time on Eco-Products and the rest on National Eco Wholesale, a distributor of eco-friendly products, and Ellie's, a retail store. Eco-Products was my firstborn, but I love what I'm doing now.

My father passed away in 2003, so he didn't witness the transition. But people who know my family often say, "Your dad would be proud." I know he would be.

IMAGE: Mike McGregor
Last updated: Sep 1, 2010

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